Sunday, March 29, 2015

The battle to preserve open records however is not over.

In case you missed it, our right to view public records in Tennessee in safe for now. Last week State Rep. Steve McDaniel took off notice a bill that would have allowed new charges to be assessed citizens who want to inspect public records. The battle to preserve open records however is not over. The Tennessee School Boards Association had called passage of the bill its top legislative priority. Rep. McDaniel said in taking off notice his bill, that the Office of Open Records Counsel had agreed to conduct public hearings on the proposal to charge for viewing public records this summer and to make a recommendation on the bill by January 2016. (See Tennessee Coalition for Open Government web site for more info.)

There is a lot of waste and pure corruption that takes place in government. Construction projects have specs written to benefit a particular vender, change orders benefit the contractor once awarded and some politically connected people have jobs created for them but do little work.  You can't stop all of this but if no one is watching a lot of it occurs. You may recall the scandal at NES and the perks given to NES bigwigs by Gaylord management in exchange for not charging for some NES services in conjunction with the Opryland Christmas lights display. That investigation by citizen activist Ken Jakes led to other revelations of massive credit card abuse at NES and other abuses.

With a diminished local news media that does very little investigative reporting, it is often up to citizens to be the public's watchdog.  If public records can be kept secret the opportunity to expose waste and corruption pretty much disappears. In Montgomery County, Maryland recently when a citizen activist filed to get public records pertaining to a $89 million construction of a library and recreation center, she was told she had to wait three months for the records to be gathered and pay sum of $58,407. That could happen in Tennessee unless we are vigilant.

I am pleased to see that in Nashville the agenda's and minutes of all boards and commissions are on line and all meetings of the Metro Council, the School Board, the Planning Commission and some others are streamed and then archived. I think everything that can reasonably be on line should be on line.  I was pleased to recently see the Davidson County Election Commission put local campaign financial reports on line. Federal and State financial disclosure reports were already available on line, but not the reports of candidates seeking local office. I am in the process of reviewing those reports to see who is financially supporting which candidate. If not on line, if I would have wanted to view the reports, I would have had to go in person to the office of the Election Commission request the reports, pay a fee per page, then come back and pick them up.  To keep watch over the democratic process should not be so difficult in this age of instant knowledge.

Regardless of one's political persuasion, I think we can all agree that the actions of government should be accessible and transparent. Meetings should be open, not conducted in secret, and records should be available for public inspection.

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